Nicola here talking about the summer holidays and the history of being beside the seaside. It’s the time of year in England when the schools are on holiday and as most people still aren’t able to travel abroad because of pandemic regulations, lots and lots of people are taking their holidays at home, particularly at the coast. The English weather being what it is, this is a risky occupation but a downpour of rain isn’t enough to put the hardy holidaymaker off! I can remember childhood holidays when the beach was so wet with rain coming down as well as the tide coming in that my sandcastles set like cement!
When I was a child (and I know that line makes me sound ancient) we took all our holidays at home, sometimes at the coast and sometimes in the countryside. Coming from Yorkshire, our favoured seaside resort was Scarborough on the east coast but we also visited family in Morecambe. In the 1920s and 30s my grandparents had been amongst the working-class crowds from Bradford who had taken their fortnight’s holiday at Morecambe. Here are my family enjoying an outing to the seaside in 1938!
As readers and authors of Regency novels, we know that the seaside holiday originated out of the fashion for medicinal sea-bathing in the 17th and 18th centuries when people would take to the waters in bathing huts on wheels attended by “dippers” who would immerse you in the health-giving seawater. This trend began early in the 18th century at the port of Liverpool but was taken up in a more refined manner at spa resorts such as Scarborough which were considered the most efficacious because the cold, strong waters of the North Sea were said to be healthier than the gentler ones of the south coast. The idea of immersing yourself in water was a new one in the 18th century as previously bathing had been considered wanton and in danger of leading to orgies such as those indulged in by the Romans. To change this attitude required doctors to make it respectable on medical grounds!
As early as the 1660s, a Dr Wittie had declared that the sea “cured gout, dried up superfluous humours and killed all manner of worms” but it took a further 70 years before people started to take the sea water cure in any numbers. When they did, they imported all the entertainments of the spa town: dancing, theatre and horse racing on the sands.
The Regency seaside resort reached its most fashionable heights at Brighton when it was made popular by the Prince Regent, with shops, libraries, assembly rooms, and all the paraphernalia of the social season developing alongside. Interestingly one of the earliest seaside traditions, donkey rides along the beach, originated in the 1780s although this was an activity for adults rather than children in those days and the ladies rode side saddle. Men traditionally bathed naked and during the Regency there is evidence that women sometimes did too although the long concealing gowns were more common. Certainly by the end of the Regency era women were encased in layers of clammy material whilst men continued to bathe nude in Brighton until 1871 when local regulations were brought in to force them to wear drawers!
The first pier in England was at Ryde in the Isle of Wight in 1813 although that originated more as a jetty because prior to its construction, visitors had had to be carried ashore like luggage on the back of a porter! Brighton’s pier was quick to follow and that led to a building rush at seaside resorts. A lot of the “pier shows” would be considered deeply inappropriate these days – Punch and Judy, Pierrot and minstrel shows and peep-shows have fallen by the wayside but some of the older traditions remain. Sandcastles, for instance, became popular in the Victorian era when there was a demand for the production of buckets and spades. Over the decades this has evolved into the amazing sand sculptures we see today. Rock-pooling was another Victorian activity that still enthrals today.
But what about seaside food? Before there were sea front restaurants, there were food sellers who wandered along the beaches offering you shrimps and oysters, cockles and whelks, which were sold in little calico bags. Shrimps were considered the greatest delicacy in Regency Brighton and were eaten for breakfast.
The classic meal of fish and chips became available in the 1860s when someone had the brilliant idea of putting fried fish together with fried potatoes. The rest, as they say, is history.
That other staple of beach holidays, the stick of rock, evolved out of sugar sticks known as “fairground rock” which was available from the early 19th century. Pedlars offered a lot of other sweetmeats to beach goers: A list of some of the food sold on the beach at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk in 1897 included chocolate creams, buns (2 for 1 penny), apples a penny a bag, Yarmouth rock, lemonade, walnuts and milk.
Candy floss, or cotton candy, came to the UK from the US in the early years of the 20th century. This was the first time it had been mass-produced although spun sugar had been made as far back as the mid-eighteenth century. Perhaps it’s in keeping with the idea of a visit to the seaside being a treat that the food that goes with it is mostly made of fat or sugar!
When I go to the seaside, I almost always come back with some sort of souvenir, whether it’s some sea glass (which I found this year on the Isle of Coll) or the stuffed seal I bought a while ago in Blackpool. Again, that's part of a tradition stretching back to the 18th century that started with wooden ornaments and progressed to china like the mug in the picture. Whatever the souvenir, it's a lovely reminder of happy holidays, and I firmly agree with the medical profession that the sea air is good for you even if the doughnuts and fish and chip help pile on the pounds!
What are your experiences of the seaside? Did you visit as a child and do you still go? What are your favourite beach occupations (relaxing with a good book?) and your special seaside food?